America and Hannukah: Two stories of religious freedom
November 28, 2012
The true meaning of holidays often gets lost in the shuffle in our secular-driven world. The various symbols of celebrations and observances within all traditions become diluted, added to and even changed altogether. Sometimes this evolution of our faith traditions is one of the great things about American religious traditions. But, other times it is important to get back to it, tradition that is. To learn where our faith traditions, our holiday celebrations come from informs us about truths, about values and about lessons that have stood the test of time. We can learn from not only the origins of these days, but also how they have changed and grown through the generations.
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah had been through many changes. From a commemoration of the rededication of the Ancient Temple after Greek Assyrian destruction to the Festival of Lights during the darkest time of the year, to an eight day celebration of the miracle of the oil. Searching through the ruins of the temple, the Jewish people were only able to find one small cruse of oil, sufficient for only one day. Yet, miraculously, this tiny amount of oil kept the sacred lamp lit for eight days – a full week to clean and rededicate the temple. As we retell the story of the oil, we eat as many fried foods as possible and embrace the season as one of miracles.
The central religious observance of this Festival of Lights is not just this feast of fried goodness, but to share the miracle with others – family, friends and community. Hanukkah, in American religious culture, has also developed a gift giving tradition, an opportunity to share with others. Yet the religious observance is not the giving of gifts nor the lighting of the menorah, although both are staples of the celebration. It is what we call in Hebrew “persumah nisah,” or to publicize the miracle. It is about sharing the good fortune of finding that miraculous cruse of oil. It is about telling and retelling the story of the underdog Maccabees proving victorious over the much mightier army (the Seleucids-Greek Assyrian Empire and their leader Antiochus IV) and securing religious freedom.
Whether your Hanukkah, or other holiday traditions, have morphed with the generations or not, remembering and recalling its origins can teach us important lessons. The story of Hannukah is about the few against the many, about fighting for religious freedom, a value upon which our own American Republic was founded. As we gather during this holiday season, I invite you to examine your own traditions and as you embrace the ways they have evolved and grown, remember to celebrate its roots, as well.